How Ordinary People Become World Class

By Simon Hartley

Founder, Be World Class

Working in sport psychology is fascinating. I spent many years watching squads of athletes training together. Typically, we would have a squad of 20-30 swimmers. They would train in the same place, arrive at the same time, leave at the same time, have the same coach and, in many cases, identical training programmes. Logic would suggest that they would therefore achieve similar levels of success. The reality, of course, is very different. Many of those swimmers faded into obscurity within the sport. Some went on to become regional or even national levels swimmers. However, one or two of the athletes that came through that club actually became world class. They joined an elite group that of athletes who were in the top handful in the world in their event.

So what was it that differentiated the ‘one or two’ that became world class from the rest? If we take logic a step further, we might imagine that the difference could be explained by ‘talent’. Maybe it was something innate. Perhaps they had a biomechanical or physiological advantage; maybe they were taller, had bigger hands, bigger feet or broader shoulders. The truth is that simply wasn’t the case. Maybe they were just naturally more capable in the water. Perhaps they were the athletes that had always been ahead in the squad, since they began swimming. Although it is a convenient explanation, it isn’t true.

The fact is that ‘talent’ was not the differentiator. One of the athletes that I worked with for many years illustrates this point perfectly. His name is Chris Cook and he swam the 100 meters breaststroke. Chris is far from being the perfect physical specimen. Whilst his competitors were typically 6’4’’ or more, Chris stands at 5’10. In his words, he had to spike his hair to reach 6’0 tall. By his own admission, he was never the most talented swimmer in the pool. In swimming, it is generally accepted that if an athlete is to ‘make it’, they need to be on the national and international stage by the time they hit 20. At the age of 18, Chris Cook applied to join the North East of England Regional Performance Squad; the best squad of swimmers in the region (notice, this is not the top squad in the country or the world, but a small region of England). He failed to get in because his swimming was not strong enough. At that point, he had not made a National final in his age group. So, Chris applied again the following year and scraped in. Clearly, he was not a ‘talented’ swimmer.

Chris Cook went on to become a double Olympian, an Olympic finalist, a double Commonwealth Gold medallist and record holder and a medallist at World and European Championships. When he finished his career, after competing in the Olympic games of 2008, Chris was 7th fastest in history in his event. As I’m sure you’ll agree, that constitutes ‘world class’ performance.

Chris Cook’s story mirrors that of many other world class performers that I have worked with and studied. Twice Michelin starred chef, Kenny Atkinson, never dreamed of being a chef when he was young. His ambition was to become a pilot in the Royal Air Force. When Kenny failed his exams at school he took a job in his uncle’s pub, washing pots. That’s where his journey to become a Michelin starred chef began. Andy McMenemy established an incredible world record when he ran 66 ultra-marathons in 66 consecutive days. He completed this epic feat on his 50th birthday. Amazingly, when Andy was 45 years old, he’d only run one marathon in is life; when he was 25. He ran his second ever marathon aged 46. Talent was not a factor in Kenny or Andy’s success.

The fact is that none of the people I studied started life as a world class performer. In reality, they all had pretty modest starting points. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of innate natural talent. There was never a point in time when they were tapped on the head by a magic wand and imparted with mystical gifts.

So what does differentiate them? What sets these people apart?

To find out, I interviewed a dozen performers who are in the top handful in the world in their field (which, incidentally, is my definition of ‘world class’). I deliberately chose a wide variety of disciplines; athletes ranked in the world’s top 10, a twice Michelin starred chef, a world barista champion (yes, he makes coffee), a record breaking polar explorer, a world-leading mountaineer, a US Navy SEAL team leader and the CEO of a world-leading medical research institution. My rationale was very simple. I wanted to find out what all of these people have in common. What do they have which others don’t? What do they do, which others won’t?

Interestingly, I discovered that those things that differentiate world class performers are not the most obvious; not those things that you might immediately think of. Many people might imagine that it is drive, determination and dedication that separate the very best. However, I don’t believe that they are differentiators. The fact is, there are thousands of people in this world with all of those qualities, but they’re not world class. The personal development books might suggest that elite performers set better goals, or write them down, or have fancy vision boards with their goals and dreams on them. That’s certainly not what I have found. In fact, those things that differentiate world class performers are actually very subtle, but incredibly profound.

I would describe it by saying that world class performance is a result of PDA not DNA. It is their Perceptions, Decisions and Actions (PDA) that set them apart, not their Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

Put simply; they think differently.

I found eight characteristics that all of these world class performers display. I believe that these qualities actually differentiate those at the pinnacle of their field and set them apart.

1. They have a dream and are fuelled by a genuine love and passion for what they do.

2. They habitually focus on the next step; the one right in front of them right now (not just the end result).

3. They keep things simple.

4. They understand what they will, and absolutely will not, compromise.

5. They push the envelope

6. They are mentally tough

7. They take complete responsibility for their performance


8. They are able to be themselves.

When I look back to the squads of swimmers, I can also see these qualities in the ‘one or two’ that began life as ‘ordinary people’ but went on to become world class.

To find out more, read… How To Shine